Flirting With the Times

Shaw's Victorian-era comedy speaks to modern gay issues

"There is a disease to which plays as well as men become liable with advancing years," wrote George Bernard Shaw in the preface to his early comedy The Philanderer (1893). "In men it is called doting, in plays dating. The more topical the play the more it dates. The Philanderer suffers from this complaint." Shaw penned those words in 1930. The world had undergone a radical transformation in the 37 years since he wrote the play, what with the First World War, growing industrialization and globalization, and shifting attitudes toward race and sex. As a result, it's no wonder that Shaw deemed his quirky, Victorian-era comedy, which deals with the constraints of contemporary marriage and divorce laws, to be "behind the times."

And yet, the bewhiskered and famously contrarian man of letters no sooner condemned The Philanderer as an anachronism than, in the very next paragraph of the preface, proclaimed it as being ahead of its time. "My picture of the past," he wrote, "may be for many people a picture of the future." The Philanderer is not commonly produced today -- Shaw's reputation among contemporary audiences rests with works like Pygmalion, Arms and the Man, Mrs. Warren's Profession, and Saint Joan -- but Theatre Rhinoceros' decision to view the play as a "work of queer theatre" makes Shaw's words appear particularly prophetic.

The play seems, on the face of it, to be very much of its time: Dealing with a resolutely heterosexual love triangle among the rakish man about town, Leonard Charteris, a young widow, Grace Tranfield, and the unmarried daughter of a colonel, Julia Craven, The Philanderer is couched in the politics of the women's rights movement. As a founding member -- along with H.G. Wells, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, and Emmeline Pankhurst -- of the forward-thinking socialist group the Fabian Society, Shaw was a staunch supporter of sexual equality. In an interview originally published in the London Tribune on March 12, 1906, for instance, he is quoted as saying: "The only decent government is governed by a body of men and women; but if only one sex must govern, then I should say, let it be women. Put the men out!"

The Philanderer.
The Philanderer.

Details

Through Oct. 15

Tickets are $15-25

861-5079

www.ther hino.org

Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (between Mission and South Van Ness), S.F.

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In the play, Julia, her younger sister Sylvia, Charteris, and Grace are members of the Ibsen Club, a fictitious society devoted to the progressive ideals espoused by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen, whom Shaw revered, held similar beliefs about the emancipation of women. "Modern society is not a human society," the author of A Doll's House and Hedda Gabler once said. "It is only a society of males." Much of the drama and comedy in The Philanderer, therefore, stems from the tension between the Ibsen Club's thoroughly modern mandate that -- regardless of gender -- all members should behave and be treated the same way, and the views of the ancien régime as espoused by old duffers Col. Daniel Craven, father of Julia and Sylvia, and Joseph Cuthbertson, Grace's dad.

Yet at the same time, The Philanderer transcends its era: Shaw's whip-cracking critique of the hard and fast rules governing sexual relationships in Victorian times -- as well as its part-playful, part-deadly-serious championing of a more fluid approach to gender, relationships, and sexuality -- can be interpreted as an exploration of issues surrounding gay rights today (and gay marital rights in particular). It is from this standpoint that Theatre Rhinoceros' rhythmic and witty production takes its lead.

Directors John Fisher and Matt Weimer (who also act in the production) haven't attempted to adapt the play to explore queer issues in a literal sense. In fact, you could probably watch this production and not see anything obviously queer in it at all. There's no cross-casting and a palpable absence of leather. Actors sporting frock coats (men), petticoats (women), and clipped English accents (both) personify the characters against Erik Flatmo's dignified, green-tiled parlor setting.

The relationship between Shaw's play and this queer interpretation is subtle, tantalizing, and altogether harder to pin down. The text gives us some clues. For instance, the very presence of the Ibsen Club, whose members swear to being "unmanly men" and "unwomanly women," provides a forum for people to behave in ways that straight-laced, conservative citizens would consider to be deviant from the heterosexual status quo. Stepping outside of accepted gender roles is a common theme throughout the play. In a society that regards women as playing a passive role in courtship, Julia unabashedly chases Charteris. Meanwhile, her bookish, opinionated sister expresses no sexual interest in men at all.

The production makes the most of these sexual fluidities. Striding about in a period tweed pantsuit, Ann Lawler looks thoroughly boyish as Sylvia. Libby O'Connell's Julia, on the other hand, stretches femininity in the opposite direction. With her divalike fits and her voluminous lace sleeves, she resembles a drag queen or a pantomime dame. The male characters are all suitably fey. With his fake-looking mustache, smooth, pale skin, and oversize frock coat, Weimer makes for an exceedingly feminine Dr. Percy Paramore -- the serious young medic who falls in love with Julia. And Fisher as arch gigolo Charteris becomes increasingly limp-wristed as the action unfolds.

Despite all the gender-bending, the production succeeds in building a bridge between 21st-century gay marital politics and the idea of the Ibsen Club as a solitary outpost of progressive thinking in a landscape governed by traditional values -- largely, I think, because of the persuasive nature of the program notes. Not only do these include an essay by Weimer explicitly pointing out the connection between Shaw's text and queer rights today, but the program also features a piece by a gay couple, Jon Lewis and Stuart Gaffney (co-leaders of the San Francisco Chapter of Equality California), about the "Winter of Love, 2004": the halcyon days of same-sex marriage in San Francisco.

Ultimately, the production's greatest asset isn't its topicality. The queer reading of the play, although interesting and no doubt prescient, feels somewhat superimposed. The beauty of this production of The Philanderer lies not so much in what it says about gay marital rights in our times, but in its searing depiction of a more eternal theme -- that of what it means to be an outcast or oddball in society. Intrinsically, The Philanderer is a misfit mutant of a play: Shaw wrote a fourth act, which he later cut, at the suggestion of a friend, making the published three-act version feel rather lopsided; and compared to the playwright's subsequent, conversation-heavy work, this early comedy seems curiously farcical and action-packed. Great plays reach beyond the merely newsworthy. And Theatre Rhino's queer interpretation of The Philanderer flirtatiously outs its misfit soul.

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